Harnad: PRC Open Access Study Flawed

Open Access pioneer Stevan Harnad this week took aim at a recently released study by the Publishing Research Coalition, saying its methodology is fundamentally flawed and that its main conclusion, that librarians will cancel journals and substitute OA materials, remains unproven. In a critique posted to the departmental repository of his home institution, the University of Southampton (UK), Harnad posits that the survey, which asked librarians which of three hypothetical products they preferred (with a variety of combinations and properties), “has a glaring methodological flaw” because it does not properly address open access through self-archiving. “The questions on which [the survey] is based were about relative preferences for acquisition among competing ‘products’ having different combinations of properties,” Harnad explained. “But self-archived articles are not products purchased by acquisitions librarians, they are papers given away by researchers, anarchically, and in parallel. Hence from the survey’s ‘Share of Preference model’ it is impossible to draw any conclusions about self-archiving causing cancellations by librarians, because the librarians were never asked what they would cancel, under what conditions; just what hypothetical products they would prefer over what.”

The study also concluded that, when possible, librarians will prefer free or low-cost resources, a conclusion that also failed to impress Harnad. “Of course [librarians] would prefer lower-priced, immediate products over higher-priced, delayed products!” Harnad wrote. But the “banal fact that everyone would rather have something for free rather than paying for it” he noted, does not “fill the gaping evidential gap about the existence, size, or timing of any hypothetical effect of self-archiving on cancellations.” Nevertheless, Harnad agrees that, in a potential future where all researchers self-archive, journal subscriptions would feel the pinch: “It is important to state clearly that, although there is still no evidence at all of self-archiving causing cancellations, it is possible, indeed probable, that self-archiving will cause some cancellations, eventually.”

The question of whether or how actively librarians would cancel journals, however, is not apparently a major concern for Harnad. “Even if valid evidence should eventually emerge that OA self-archiving does cause journal cancellations,” he wrote, “it would be for the publishing community to adapt to that new reality, not for the research community to abstain from it, and its obvious benefits to research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, and the tax-paying public.”

Library Journal Academic Newswire, Nov 16, 2006